Although I did not make a substantial number of posts in 2012, the traffic to my site doubled.  Throughout 2012 my blog had 35,819 hits from 31,960 unique visitors, accounting for over 46,720 page views.  I had visitors from every state in the US and visits from people from 165 nations around the world.  Visitors from the United States accounted for the vast majority of those hits, but the UK, Canada, India, and Australia also brought in large contingents.

 

This year the top ranked article was my 2011 post on Conspicuous Consumption and the Peacock’s Tail, which accounted for 50% more hits than this year’s number two ranked article (Brainwaves and Other Brain Measures – the number one post from last year).  The piece on conspicuous consumption, is in my opinion, one of my all time most important pieces.  It addresses our inherent drive to advance one’s social standing while actually going nowhere on the hedonic treadmill.  It delves into the environmental costs of buying into the illusion of consumer materialism and its biological origins (the signaling instinct much like that of the Peacock). The Brainwave piece, also from 2011, compares and contrasts the different measures used to peer into the workings of the brain.

 

Of my posts published in 2012, only two made it to this year’s top ten list: five were from 2010 and three were published in 2011.  Of those eight from previous years, five were also on the top ten list last year.

 

My 2012 review and discussion of the Broadway Musical Wicked topped the list of posts actually written in 2012, but it came in third overall this year relative to all other posts.  This article explores the theme that “things are not as they seem.”  I relate the story told in the show to the political and historical manipulation American citizens are subjected to, and it stirs up unpleasant and inconvenient realities that many would prefer remain unknown.

 

Great interest persists in my post entitled Nonmoral Nature: It is what it is.  This review of Stephen Jay Gould’s most famous article received a number four ranking, down from a number two ranking over the last two years.  I had also reviewed in 2010 a very popular New York Time’s article by Steven Pinker entitled The Moral Instinct.  This article moved down two notches this year, ultimately ranking number five.  My critical article on the Implicit Associations Test ranked number six this year, versus a number four ranking last year.  My 2011 post Where Does Prejudice Come From? ranked number seven this year, down two spots from its ranking in 2011.  One of my all time favorite posts from 2010, Emotion vs. Reason: And the Winner is?  returned to the top ten list this year coming in eighth.   In 2010 it ranked number ten, but it fell off the list last year.  My Hedgehog versus the Fox mindset piece ranked number nine this year, compared to a number ten ranking last year.  Finally, in the number ten slot this year,  is my 2012 article Happiness as Measured by GDP: Really?  This post was perhaps the most important post of the year.

 

So here is the Top Ten list for 2012.

  1. Conspicuous Consumption and the Peacock’s Tail (2011)
  2. Brainwaves and Other Brain Measures (2011)
  3. Wicked! Things are NOT as they Seem (2012)
  4. Non Moral Nature: It is what it is (2010)
  5. Moral Instinct  (2010)
  6. IAT: Questions of Reliability and Validity  (2010)
  7. Where Does Prejudice Come From?  (2011)
  8. Emotion vs. Reason: And the Winner is? (2010)
  9. Are you a Hedgehog or a Fox?  (2010)
  10. Happiness as Measured by GDP: Really? (2012)

 

Again this year, the top ten articles represent the foundational issues that have driven me in my quest to understand how people think.   This cross section of my work is, in fact, a good starting point for those who are new to my blog.  There are several other 2012 posts that ranked outside the top ten; regardless, I believe they are important.  These other posts include:

 

 

This latter article, The Meek Shall Inherit The Earth, pertains to the microbiome, the collection of an estimated 100 trillion individual organisms thriving in and on your body that account for about three pounds of your total body weight (about the same weight as your brain).  These little creatures play a huge role in your physical and mental well being and we are just beginning to understand the extent of their reach.  Modern medicine in the future, will likely embrace the microbiome as a means of preventing and treating many illnesses (including treating some mental illnesses).

 

Although, not among the most popular articles this year, my pieces on the pernicious affects of poverty on child development from 2011 warrant ongoing attention.  If we truly wish to halt the cycle of poverty, then we need to devote early and evidenced based intervention services for children and families living in poverty.  As it turns out, poverty is a neurotoxin.  Knowing the information in this series should motivate us, as a society, to truly evaluate our current political and economic policies.

 

 

The bottom line:

 

The human brain, no matter how remarkable, is flawed in two fundamental ways.  First, the proclivities toward patternicity (pareidolia), hyperactive agency detection, and superstition, although once adaptive mechanisms, now lead to many errors of thought.  Since the age of enlightenment, when human kind developed the scientific method, we have exponentially expanded our knowledge base regarding the workings of the world and the universe.  These leaps of knowledge have rendered those error prone proclivities unessential for survival.  Regardless, they have remained a dominant cognitive force.  Although our intuition and rapid cognitions have sustained us, and in some ways still do, the subsequent everyday illusions impede us in important ways.

 

Secondly, we are prone to a multitude of cognitive biases that diminish and narrow our capacity to truly understand the world. Time after time I have written of the dangers of ideology with regard to its capacity to blindfold its disciples.  Often those blindfolds are absolutely essential to sustain the ideology.  And this is dangerous when truths and facts are denied or innocents are subjugated or brutalized.  As I discussed in Spinoza’s Conjecture:

 

“We all look at the world through our personal lenses of experience.  Our experiences shape our understanding of the world, and ultimately our understanding of [it], then filters what we take in.  The end result is that we may reject or ignore new and important information simply because it does not conform to our previously held beliefs.

 

Because of these innate tendencies, we must make additional effort to step away from what we believe to be true in order to discover the truth.

 

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Science has a PR problem.  Perhaps it is because science is responsible for some technological developments that have outpaced our moral capacity.  Or perhaps it is because the knowledge bestowed upon us through the scientific process increasingly pushes God out of the gaps.  But some are irritated by “scientists” who arrogantly assert absolute truths about the universe when in actuality, underneath their assertions, there are only probabilities with error bars.

 

I believe that one of the most fundamental problems with science is that we cannot see it.  The vastness of time and space and the minuteness of science’s edge, right now, defy the senses.  We do not have the capacity to imagine the scope and breadth of time involved in the formation of the universe or even the time scale of the evolution of complex life.  It is beyond our capacity to imagine how incredibly insignificant our place is in the cosmos.  Likewise, the realities of life at the cellular level and the complexity of interactions at the subatomic level, escape logic and defy the rules by which we live our lives.

 

Science is a juggernaut of increasingly and unapproachable complexity.  No longer are great discoveries made with home-made telescopes or in monastery greenhouses.  Science has become so specialized and at its focus, so minute, or so vast, that it is beyond the human experience.  The technical and mathematical skills required, and the sophistication of the instruments employed, all take us deeper and deeper, and further and further beyond anything that most of us can comprehend.

These realities literally bring science to the level of science fiction.  I once read a bumper sticker that said “I don’t have enough faith to believe in science.”  Although that sticker was posted by a Christian troubled about science’s role in the diminishment of God, it strikes me, that it may, on another level, represent the level of detachment science has accomplished through its very own progress.  If one does not truly understand the scientific process and the absolute intellectual scrutiny of the process itself, it is easy to assume that faith is necessary to believe in science. To the average person, buying what science tells us does require a leap of faith.

 

Yet, there is a fundamental difference between science and faith.  I once heard Donald Johanson talk about Lucy, his famous find.  In 1973 Johanson found a fossil that dramatically changed the way we conceptualized hominid evolution.  Lucy was a 3.2 million year old Australopithecus afarensis fossil that provided evidence that hominids walked upright before the brain got bigger.  It had been believed up until then, that in hominids, a bigger brain evolved first, giving our ancestral kin the smarts needed to survive a ground based and bipedal existence. The paradigm shifted based on this new evidence.  Such is the way of science.  In his talk, Dr. Johanson clearly and simply differentiated science and faith.  What he said was:

Science is evidence without certainty while Faith is certainty without evidence

 

I guess it boils down to what degree one values evidence.

 

A related issue pertains to the fact that sometimes the results of science are portrayed with too much certainty.  And sometimes writers overreach with their interpretation of findings.  This is a legitimate concern.  The greater scrutiny I give science, the more I see that this problem generally emanates from science writers (journalists) rather than from the scientific community.  Humility and the acknowledgement of the limits of one’s findings (i.e., error bars), are the hallmarks of good science.  This becomes increasingly important as we investigate deeply remote phenomena, be it the quantum realm, the formation of the universe, or even the geological evolution of our planet.  Science attempts to form a clear picture when only intermittent pixels are accessible.

 

A wonderful example of such humility is evidenced in Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Some people use his own skeptical analysis as a refutation of his own theory.  Reading the book negates such an argument.  Every paper published in a reputable peer reviewed journal includes a Discussion section where the authors detail the potential flaws and confounds, as well as suggested areas of improvement for future research.  If one accesses the actual science itself, this humility is evident.  But in the media, over reaching is commonplace, and it warrants reasonable suspicion.

 

There are however, areas of science where the evidence is so broad and so complete that certainty is absolutely asserted.  Evolution by means of natural selection is one of those areas.  Yet evolution and the dating of the planet for example run into controversy as they intersect with the beliefs of those who sustain a literal interpretation of the Bible. This is where two world-views diverge, or more aptly, collide.

 

Long ago, when we lacked an understanding of geology, meteorology, the germ theory of disease, and neurology, people tried to make sense of random events like floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, droughts, plagues, seizures, depression, mania, and dementia.  We did this because we struggled to make sense of substantial, catastrophic,  and seemingly random events.  When such events occur, it is our nature to seek out patterns that help us make sense of it all.  Vengeful deities were historically the agents of such destructive forces.  Just as we are universally driven to explain our origins, as evidenced by a plethora of diverse creation stories, we are compelled to make sense of our destruction.  As we have come to develop a better understanding of the world around us, little by little, God as a creative and destructive force has been displaced.

 

This increased material understanding of our world poses a serious threat to literal religion.  Although, for most scientists, the target is not the destruction of God.  On the contrary, knowledge is the goal.  Unfortunately, because of this looming and powerful threat, science and knowledge have become targets for some religious people.  The problem with science is that it threatens deeply held ideological belief systems that, at their core, value faith over evidence.

 

It comes back to that Evidence question again.  As humans we are more compelled by stories that provide comfort and give significance to our existence, than by the data that asserts and demands humility.  This is not a problem with science, it is a problem with the human brain.

 

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You know the feeling, that intense rush that follows a perceived threat.   The flushed face, the perspiration, and the increased heart rate: they are all signs of activation of the sympathetic nervous system.  This system’s job is to ready you for a fight or fleeing when danger appears.  This incredibly adaptive and automatic system has facilitated our very survival as a species.  But here is the rub – this response is non-specific.  In other words, it doesn’t always differentiate between physical and psychological threats.  And, as it turns out, the brain’s psychological threat detector is very sensitive.

 

I have long wondered why people (including myself) get so emotional when discussing issues such as politics and religion.  The human brain’s threat detector, you see, interprets challenges to our core beliefs as if they are indeed threats to our personal safety.  And unfortunately, this response is accompanied by a diminished capacity to use reason and by an intensification of emotion.  Rarely are these latter two factors helpful in conflict resolution.

 

Think about it.  Do you recall getting upset when someone has challenged one of your deeply held beliefs?   Or perhaps experiencing a similar reaction when someone shows contempt for something you like or enjoy?  It’s a general rule in my family – “Never discuss religion or politics at social gatherings.”  I think this rule came to be part of my culture because of the general futility of such discussions, but perhaps more so, because of the interpersonal damage done when this rule has been ignored.  Little did I know – it’s the brain’s fault!

 

It doesn’t take much effort to see this phenomena in action.  All you have to do is post something of a provocative or controversial matter on facebook and you may see the emotional decay that follows.  Or likewise, you could say something equally provocative to an acquaintance with diametrically opposed beliefs.  While many people hold their tongues, some get upset and respond with vitriol or personal attacks.  At the root of this latter response, is that same brain system that really evolved to ready you for fight or flight.  In the belief arena, however, this autonomic arousal tends to be anything but adaptive.

 

A recent study found that the scope of this non-specific response includes even the brands we identify with.  Yep!  Even attacks on your brands may be misinterpreted by your brain as an attack on you.  Think about the acrimony aroused in conflict between those who have strong feelings about Apple vs. PC, iPhone vs. Android, or the pissing matches that ensue between fans loyal to Chevy or Ford.  I’m sure you have seen the stickers in the back windows of pickup trucks of a boy urinating on the emblem of the opposing brand.  This loyalty, I think, is best evidenced by the intense loyalty people develop for their hometown sports teams.  Some fans have brutalized other fans at NFL football games for cheering for the wrong team.   If you throw alcohol into the mix, things can get ugly.

 

You see, from your brain’s perspective, you are your beliefs and your brands.  Perhaps understanding this will help you cope with the feelings that rush forth in the moment – or help you assess the relative futility of walking into such conflicts.  You must understand that when you attack someone’s beliefs (or brands), they will likely respond, unbeknownst to them, as if you are attacking them personally.  Reason and objectivity become irrelevant in such circumstances.  Know this, anticipate this, and weigh your words carefully.

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I am a caring and compassionate man with deep concerns about humanity.  Of utmost importance to me is the issue of human flourishing, which roughly translated, incorporates wellness, happiness, success, and adaptive functioning not only for the individual, but for society in general.  Individual flourishing necessitates societal flourishing and vice versa.  One does not rise at the expense of the other.  Promoting human flourishing has been my life’s work.

 

I see around me much acrimony, the source of which often ascends from moral inclinations from diverse cultures.  This concerns me, as one ought to suppose that morality should promote human flourishing.  Should it not instill virtue and wellness for all?  Unfortunately, the moral teachings of the world’s religions pitch one belief against another.  And it does not take much effort to see that virtually all ideologically based moral systems actually inhibit human flourishing for many.

 

At the core of these issues are several human inclinations that feed and sustain many of the perpetual conflicts that consume our blood and treasure and in other ways gravely harm our brothers and sisters.  Deeper still, at the root of many erroneous human inclinations, is a flawed brain that makes us vulnerable to ideology and likely to sustain beliefs without good reason.

 

Our brains sustain vestigial mechanisms that render us prone to all sorts of cognitive errors and illusions.  As a major consequence, we are inclined to hold on to belief systems regardless of substantive evidence to suggest that we just might be wrong.   This Cognitive Conservatism is a universal human attribute, and it plays out as we disregard, devalue, discredit, and/or out-write ignore evidence that contradicts previously held beliefs.  At the same time, we gladly take in evidence that confirms our beliefs.  This is an undeniable truth about the human condition.

 

Suffice it to say that our brains are belief engines leaving us vulnerable to mysticism and disinclined to accept aggregated evidence.  As such, our moral guidance has been historically guided by intuition (how things seem) as opposed to reason (how things actually are).  As a result, our intuitions in modern times are often wrong.  We tend to be compelled by anecdotes and stories rather than data.  We have relied on intuition and apparent correlations to guide us, and only recently has the scientific method entered our consciousness (circa 1400).

 

Another problematic inclination stems from our tribal tendencies.  Because of this we have developed a wide variety of diverse and often incompatible moral doctrines.  We have for fear of cultural insensitivity and accusation of bias, been pressured to accept as “moral” such atrocities as genital mutilation, genocide, and the demonization of homosexuality.  Although we might not view such acts as moral, the perpetrators certainly do.  This Moral Relativism, I believe is a grave error, particularly when you look at the subsequent consequences relative to human flourishing.

 

In some cultures it is acceptable to engage in honor killing.  For example, to torture, mutilate, or kill a female family member who has been a victim of rape is considered honorable.  Or consider martyrdom.  Suicide bombers fully believe that they are serving their God by killing infidels.  They further believe that they and 70 of their closest family and friends will be granted eternal bliss in the afterlife for doing God’s benevolent work.   Can we rightfully accept that either of these acts advances human flourishing?  Is it truly acceptable to condone either act because it is believed to be morally acceptable by their culture?  Is disapproving of these acts culturally insensitive or indicative of bias?

 

Using the same logic, is it acceptable to limit the expression of romantic love to only those that happen to be from the opposite sex?  Does rendering homosexuality illegal or immoral, promote or hinder human flourishing?  I suggest that it accomplishes the latter.  And are not the origins of the beliefs that render homosexuality wrong, wrought from the same belief mechanisms that encourage martyrdom or honor killings?

 

If I am driven to use evidence to guide decisions regarding what promotes or diminishes human flourishing, one has to ask the question: “Is science biased?”  I recently read articles by morality guru Jonathon Haidt who suggested that indeed this may be the case.  He didn’t really argue that the data rendered by Social Psychologists was flawed.  He simply argued that the scientists themselves (in the field of social psychology) are heavily skewed to the liberal left.  The problem I have with his argument is that scientists use evidence to guide their beliefs, and as such, end up sharing liberal inclinations.  Does that render them biased?   I believe not.  There is a substantial difference between those that base their beliefs on evidence and those that base their beliefs on ideology.  It is more true to say that ideologues are biased because their beliefs that are unprovable and generally devoid of any real evidence.  This, I believe, is far more dubious.

 

Speaking of bias, I recently read an article written by a Roman Catholic Priest that derided National Public Radio (NPR) as being biased on par with right wing conservative media outlets.  The context of the argument was NPR’s inclination to cover the issue of homosexuality in a way that condoned it.  Because the author holds the belief that homosexuality is immoral, and NPR comes off as pro gay marriage (as well as taking other pro “liberal” positions), the author suggests that NPR, as an institution, is biased.  I could not disagree more with this notion.  NPR may have a liberal slant, but this does not automatically imply that it is biased.  I would argue that at NPR there is a stronger inclination to use evidence-based, rather than ideologically-based reason to guide its reporting.  Isn’t that what reporters are supposed to do?  Somehow, because the evidence does not support the moral inclinations of the church, or those of social conservatives, it is biased?  I think not!

 

This accusation of bias is wrong at a profoundly deep level!  Even if 90% of scientists are secular liberals, that does not render the facts that they expose as biased.  There is only one truth – and if the truth does not fit one’s beliefs, that doesn’t render it less truthful.  Moral relativism opens the door to multiple truths and renders evidence meaningless.  If we condone such thinking, then who are we to judge those who brought down the World Trade Center towers as “evil doers?”

 

Likewise, who are we to diminish the quality of life of a small but no less significant portion of our population because they happen to be born gay, lesbian, or bisexual?  Within consenting relationships, does gender really matter?  Can it be argued that making same sex intimacy illicit, diminishes human flourishing?  Yes it can, and it most definitely does!

 

When ideology crosses a line that diminishes human flourishing it has gone too far.  I am reminded of what I wrote in Surprise Chautauqua after listening to Bishop John Shelby Spong.

“Spong derides religious zealots who promote racism, sexism, antisemitism, and homophobia based upon quotations from the Holy Scriptures.  His rational embrace of science and the realities of human suffering (often as a result of religion’s influence) have guided his journey toward a reinterpretation of the faith story.  He strongly asserts that he wants nothing to do with any institution that diminishes the humanity of any child of God. He deplores how the Bible and the Church have harbored those that have relegated blacks to subhuman status, women as second class citizens, and gay and lesbian people as essentially immoral.”

 

I am incensed when religious doctrine results in human suffering. This is particularly true with regard to the Catholic Church who squandered any hope of offering moral guidance with regard to sexuality when it systematically aided and abetted pedophiles.   The Catholic Church should be granted no more moral authority than radical Islam. Their respective track records with regard to promoting human flourishing are abysmal. Only when we have the courage to stop turning a blind eye toward social injustice and stop condoning systematic human degradation (because it is consistent with a religious “moral” teaching) will all of humanity be able to truly thrive.

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Tribal Moral Community

25 February 2011

We humans are a unique species – capable of both incredible compassion and unequaled brutality.  We are also unique in the degree to which we congregate in social communities.  Social Psychologists refer to this propensity to gather as we do, as being ultra social.  Unlike other ultra social species (e.g., wasps, ants, bees, termites, and naked mole rats) who band together in kin-based groups for procreation, we humans join together for other more complex reasons. (Haidt, 2008)  Those things that bind us, it is argued, are also the things that fuel our brutality.

 

We are particularly good at joining together when in competition with other groups (Haidt, 2011).  Evidence suggests that this has been true since the very beginning of humankind, and it is evidenced today by family loyalty (e.g., I can bad mouth my brother but an outsider cannot), cliques that form in schools (e.g., jocks, heads, nerds), by community organizations (Elks, Masons, Kiwanis, Rotarians), by the spirit surrounding high school, college, and professional sports teams, as well as by Churches (e.g., Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterian, Fundamentalists, Unitarians), Mosques (e.g., Shia and Sunni), and Synagogues (e.g., Orthodox Jews, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist).  We also see this in civic pride (by town, city, region, and state) national pride (patriotism), in the gatherings of individuals by racial affiliation, by sexual orientation, by professional affiliation, ancestral heritage, and political affiliation.  We bind together and join with people who share important beliefs, values, allegiances, interests, histories, and/or symbols.

 

There is substantial evidence to believe that this proclivity to be drawn together, and at the same time, to be divided into camps, is driven by morality.  We humans have evolved, it seems, innate moral values that transcend all cultures. I have discussed this in Political Divide, Moral Instinct, Moral Foundations Theory, and Human Nature at the Core of the Political Divide in an effort to understand the vast differences in thinking evidenced within and across our cultures.  Even among my family members, all of whom I dearly love, their are vast differences that often leave me perplexed.  Jonathon Haidt’s research on Moral Foundations Theory, his talk at TED, and his recent controversial statements about bias in the social sciences inspired this post and have helped me come to grips with the deep divisions throughout society and within my family.

 

First, I must provide a brief recap of Moral Foundations Theory.  According to Haidt (based on an extensive review of the research across multiple disciplines), the five universal morals include: (1) harm/care (strong empathy for those that are suffering and care for the most vulnerable); (2) fairness/reciprocity (equal rights, justice, and fairness for all); (3) ingroup/loyalty (tribalism, patriotism, nationalism); (4) authority/respect (clear lines of authority, uniform expectations, and appropriate deference to the law and authority figures); and (5) purity/sanctity (clear and pure social morals in step with piety, as well as revulsion of disgust/carnality).

 

You see, across the five universal morals, people differ in the degree to which they value each moral.   This is evidenced most clearly in Haidt’s research on the degree to which Liberals and Conservatives deviate on their weighting of the importance of each specific value.  See Political Divide for a more in-depth discussion of this topic.

Click on Figure to enlarge

 

Liberals seem to value harm/care and fairness/reciprocity above the others, devaluing ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity.  They look out for the little guy and highly value equal rights for all.  They also value diversity, are open to experience – tending to enjoy creativity and novelty.  They may see harm in overreaching government intrusion (e.g., Patriot Act), danger in blind nationalism, and the injustices in puritanical religions and free market capitalism (particularly for those at the bottom – namely: women, children, and minorities).  Think of places like New York City or San Francisco where diversity and creativity abound and are in many ways celebrated. Conservatives tend to look at the social entropy and degradation in such places as evidence of immorality.

 

Conservatives tend to hold all of the values on an equal level.  They do value harm/care and fairness/reciprocity but less so than Liberals.  But unlike Liberals, they do highly value ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity.   As a result they tend to value social order, restraint, and conventions all held together by a strict authority.  They value self-control over self-expression, duty over rights, and loyalty to one’s group over concerns for outgroups (Haidt, 2008).  Liberals tend to view such systems as repressive, invasive, and constrictive.

 

Liberals and Conservatives join together in their respective camps forming what Haidt (2011) refers to as Tribal Moral Communities.  Such banding is not unique to those with strong political affiliations – this proclivity transcends society.  And what characterizes a Tribal Moral Community is a grouping of people who rally around sacred objects and principles (e.g., the flag, patriotism, freedom, religion) in such a way that their sacralized truths render them blind to the truths held by the outgroup.

 

Conflict and brutality can arise when the people rally around the certainty that their moral position is correct.  Threats to a Moral Tribal Community tend to incite its constituents to become intuitive theologians, employing reason not to find the truth but rather to defend their moral position.  They tend to circle the wagons around their belief systems becoming rigid and impervious to input (especially facts that challenge one’s position).  (Haidt, 2011)

 

To make this more concrete lets look at a few examples of Tribal Moral Communities.  Of particular note is the conservative stand denying anthropogenic global warming because of the implications it has on their free-market ideology. Belief in an ideology blinds adherents to the evidence.

 

Lets also consider the conflict between fundamentalist Christians and Scientists who contend that, based on a huge convergence of objective evidence from astronomy, geology, evolutionary biology, and paleontology, that the universe is over 13.67 billion years old, that the earth is 4.56 billion years old, and that all living organisms are interrelated, having evolved by means of natural selection to their current forms over billions of years.  Because the Bible is considered sacred text – scientific evidence that undermines the word of God is often vilified rather than objectively scrutinized.

 

And then there are the proponents of vaccines and the anti vaccine folks, Socialists and Capitalists, Free-Market and Keynesian Economists, Christians and Muslims, Muslims and Jews, Pro-Lifers and Pro-Choice Advocates, the LGBT Community and religious conservatives, the Hutus’ and Tutsis of Rwanda, the Zaghawa and Tama tribes of Chad, the Sunni and Shia of Islam, Al Qaeda and the US, Iran and the US, North Korea and the US, and I could go on and on.  At the core of each of these divisions is a moral divide that stirs both binding forces that fuel patriotism and in-group loyalty and blinding forces that have the potential of negating the moral standing of, or even the humanity of those in the out-group.

 

It is this capacity that has fueled humanity’s most brutal behavior.  Picture in your mind, images from Auschwitz,from the lynchings of African Americans in the South, from the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, and from 9/11.  All of these were fueled by moral authority.

 

Of course there are degrees of effect associated with Tribal Moral Communities.  Dr. Haidt has gone out on a limb to challenge his own professional community.  He has noted that according to Gallop polls over the last ten years, 40% of Americans consider themselves Conservative, 20% Liberal, and 38% Moderates.  Yet in the field of Social Psychology, approximately 90% are acknowledged Liberals – with less than 1% acknowledged Conservatives.  He contends that this narrow political perspective weakens the field, although he did not suggest that the research to date has been flawed.  He suggests rather, that it would likely be bettered if more conservatives were in the field to bring the richness of diversity that it currently lacks. (Haidt, 2011).

 

There are other important gradients to consider.  Here in the United States for example, rarely do Buffalo Bills fans and Miami Dolphin fans brutalize one another.  But African Americans, Gays, Jews, American’s of Middle Eastern descent, and even doctors employed at family planning clinics have not been so lucky.

 

Clearly morality binds, but is also blinds.  Every body believes that their moral perspective is the correct moral perspective, and given the brutality we see among us, it is certain that we all cannot be right.  Our certainty and righteousness unites us into teams that have the effect of amplifying that certainty and righteousness.  This binding also has the propensity to divide us and ultimately blind us to reality.  Therefore, for any sacralized issue, if we want the truth we must be willing to step away from ideology and open our minds to the possibility that we may be wrong or at least partially wrong and that the outgroup may be right or at least partially right.  That is the first step, if you are truly interested in the truth.

 

References:

 

Graham, J., Haidt, J., and Nosek, B. (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different moral foundations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 96, No. 5, 1029–1046

 

Haidt, J. (2008). What Makes People Vote Republican? http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/haidt08/haidt08_index.html

 

Haidt, J., (2008).  The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives. A Talk at TED.

 

Haidt, J. (2011).  The Bright Future of Post Partisan Social Psychology. Talk given at the annual conference for the Sociaty for Personality and Social Psychology.

 

Pinker, S. (2002). The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Penguin Books.

 

Pinker, S. (2008). The Moral InstinctThe New York Times. January 13, 2008.

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Surprise at Chautauqua

23 July 2010

There are moments in life when you hear something that absolutely blows you away. I experienced such a moment on July 1st at Chautauqua Institution in Western New York. It wasn’t just the words I heard that touched me so. It was the words within the context, and the relative embrace of the words exhibited by the people that surrounded me.

 

First you have to understand the unique setting that is Chautauqua: an amusement park for the mind. It was initially built on the shores of Chautauqua Lake in 1874 as an “educational experiment in out-of-school, vacation learning.” Although initially the courses were for Sunday school teachers, its success and popularity precipitated a broadening of the curriulum to include academic subjects, music, art and physical education. Today on their website they note that “7,500 persons are in residence on any day during a nine-week season, and a total of over 142,000 attend scheduled public events. Over 8,000 students enroll annually in the Chautauqua Summer Schools which offer courses in art, music, dance, theater, writing skills and a wide variety of special interests.”

 

For those longing for intellectual and artistic stimulation in a peaceful setting, it constitutes a veritable fantasy land adorned with quaint Victorian era cottages often fronted with beautiful and pristine landscaping. Among its many homes, inns, and entertainment facilities arranged in a cozy village-like setting, are church houses where people congregate from all over the United States for religious retreats. The four pillars of Chautauqua are Art, Education, Religion, and Recreation. Needless to say, religion (particularly Christianity) is a big part of this community. But so is education and art. They have a quality symphony orchestra, a theater group, an opera company, and a dance ensemble. Nightly, they provide top notch entertainment in the sizable amphitheater.  Throughout each day, every day, there are lectures and events galore.

 

The last three years my wife and I have ventured to Chautauqua for science themed days where we attended lectures by people like Donald Johanson and Carl Zimmer. NASA had a mock up of a Mars Rover there last year. This year I was drawn by Alan Alda who is a true science geek like myself.

 

Each afternoon the Department of Religion hosts a lecture series.  Although I often miss these events for a number of reasons, this year, my innkeeper, knowing my proclivities, strongly recommended that I consider listening to this week’s speaker.  I took her advice and my wife and I skeptically sat at the Hall of Philosophy among an overflow crowd that I could only guess exceeded 1000 people. The lecturer was John Shelby Spong, a Bishop in the Episcopal Church. Rabbi Samuel Stahl introduced Bishop Spong and the Rabbi’s words drew me in, in a way that made me feel as though my mind was being read. It was a spine-tingling experience from the outset, and Spong’s words were unlike any I had ever heard from a man of God.

 

I certainly will not be able to capture and share in this medium the true essence of his message – but I will attempt to briefly summarize it. I STRONGLY encourage any person of faith as well as any person like myself who falls into the agnostic or atheist camp to listen to this lecture: Transcending Religion without Transcending God. You can sign up for a 15 Day Free Trial / Download Account and listen to this lecture online or pay $9.95 for a download to your iPod or MP3 player.

 

I’m guessing that anyone who listens to this talk with an open mind will be in some way moved by his words. I am also guessing that personal reactions will run the gamut from “this guy is a heretic” to “finally a voice of reason coming from the religious community.”  If you are likely to be among the former, Spong proclaims that he wishes to destroy no one’s faith, but boldly states that “If I can take away your God, you had very little, if you can lose it all in one hour.”

 

If you are religious, keep in mind as you consider listening, that this lecture was part four of a five part series. Spong had lectured in a similar vain for three consecutive days at the Hall of Philosophy to a pretty religious group of people and this day’s crowd was the biggest I had ever seen gathered (excluding events at the amphitheater).  This was not an angry or defensive crowd, but a thoughtful and attentive one.  What Spong said deeply challenged conventional definitions of religion but the people came back for more.  And if you are a rationalist, more inclined toward science than mysticism, you will be refreshed by Spong’s embrace of science and urging away from the traditional notions of religion that many find hard to accept.  Even Richard Dawkins seems to respect Spong.

 

Spong derides religious zealots who promote racism, sexism, antisemitism, and homophobia based upon quotations from the Holy Scriptures.  His rational embrace of science and the realities of human suffering (often as a result of religion’s influence) have guided his journey toward a reinterpretation of the faith story.  He strongly asserts that he wants nothing to do with any institution that diminishes the humanity of any child of God. He deplores how the Bible and the Church have harbored those that have relegated blacks to subhuman status, women as second class citizens, and gay and lesbian people as essentially immoral.  He explains the human experience within a context of understanding derived from biology and anthropology. He links our instinctual drive to survive to all living organisms and with this understanding, supplants the notion of original sin.  He embraces the teachings of Darwin and reinterprets salvation – not as a rescue from the fall from perfection but as a new understanding of what it is to be fully human. After all, we haven’t fallen – we have evolved.

 

Salvation he argues is not to be made religious. It is not to be forced into a particular creed or to follow a particular faith story. Salvation is to be made whole – to be called beyond our limits, our fears, our boundaries, and to be called into a new consciousness, a new humanity – where we can be called beyond our selfish drive to survive, and begin to truly give of our lives and our love.

 

Spong challenges both the notions of a personal God with supernatural powers and the traditional Jesus story.  He derides the traditional notion that humans are inherently depraved – and looks at our understanding of human development and asks if it is a wise parenting strategy to tell a child that he is bad, evil, and depraved in an attempt to turn that child into a healthy adult. He looks at how religion victimizes its followers and how in turn its practice facilitates hate and division.

 

Spong provides a sobering account of religion in general – particularly the prejudicial inspiration it has historically provided and the violence it has incited in the name of one’s preferred deity. Again, rather than reject science as a threat to an ideology, he embraces evidence, and searches for a new spiritual transcendence of God – to fill what he describes as a God Shaped Whole in every living person. His ultimate mysticism is a bit of a stretch for me – but all in all – the 80 minutes required to listen to his message is indeed time well spent.  The experience itself, for me, set in the Chautauqua Institution context, was deeply moving and inspired hope that we can move away from the unnecessary corrosive derision whereby some religious zealots dumb down the masses to protect their fragile foothold or engage in promulgating the dehumanization of those who are different.  It gives me hope that those who have spiritual needs unfulfilled by the wonders of the universe can find peace with God in a way that bolsters our humanity rather than in a way that divides us. Please give Spong a listen and let me know what you experience through his message.

 

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